Chapter 1

Mid-January, late 1980s, Orlando, Florida

Mmmmm.  I sucked in a deep breath and released a contented sigh.  A cool, gentle breeze wafted through the open sliding screen door, tempting me away from the English worksheets sprawled across the kitchen counter where I sat finishing my seventh-grade homework.  Refreshing winter temps also tantalized my senses and lured me to the edge of my seat.

My gaze wandered out the window and onto the green grass speckled with brown blades spread below the metal bars of our family’s swing set in the back yard.  I watched the wind nudge each swing forward again and again, lulling my daydreams with its repetition.  Rustling leaves made a hushing sound, and a baby squirrel scampered its way along the edge of the brown weathered wooden fence skirting the perimeters of our property.  I smiled.  What a perfect afternoon! 

The high-pitched squeal of brakes, followed by the low, rumbling engine of an idling bus, drew my attention to the clock on the wall.  Quarter after three.  The neighborhood suddenly came alive with youthful, jovial chatter as public school children found their way home.  I sighed.  Due to attending a private Christian school, my eight-year-old sister, Julia, and I generally settled into our afternoon routines thirty minutes before everyone else; but, for some reason, that never made the homework disappear any faster.  Begrudging my responsibility, I looked down at the counter.  Two more worksheets.  I allowed an exasperated groan to vocalize.

Screeching tires.  A car door slamming.  Loud verbal commands.  Commotion outside immediately turned my attention toward the front door and a black sedan parked at the edge of our driveway.  An awkward hush fell over the neighborhood children as a feeling of doom announced our visitor.  All eyes turned and stared as a large burly woman stormed her way to our front door.  The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and I swallowed hard, forcing down a sudden fear rising in my throat.  What does she want? Our black aluminum front screen door flew open with great force, giving me little time to wonder.

Colleen’s familiar form barged through the entryway of our house, dragging a whimpering, bewildered six-year-old girl in her wake.  Dark brown Shirley Temple curls bounced around the little girl’s face as she repeatedly stumbled down the hallway in an effort to match her mother’s large strides.  The child winced in pain every time Colleen’s vice-grip of fingers yanked her back to a standing position, terror reflecting in her eyes.

“How could you?  And to think I trusted you!”  Colleen’s words shot through the air like angry darts searching for a victim, her feet pounding out a threat across our linoleum floor.  “I paid for Alicia to be under your care, and this is how you repay me?  YOU TRAMP!” she yelled, locking her gaze on me.  “No decent babysitter would’ve done what you’ve done to my child!”

I flinched at Colleen’s verbal blows, suddenly finding myself in need of air.  Tramp?  Trust?   “What did I do?” I whispered. 

“Oh, don’t play innocent with me.  You know exactly what you did!”  Colleen’s eyes bore into mine.  A fine-tuned world of manipulation and spite displayed itself behind a verbal avalanche of hate.  “Just wait until I get done with you!  Everyone around here will know what kind of person you really are,” she raged.  “You’re nothing more than a low-life pedophile—and a good-for-nothing child abuser, at that,” she snapped.

My brow caved in confusion, a plethora of questions flooding my mind.  Pedophile?  Child abuser?  I subconsciously held my breath, waiting for the next blow.

Mom stepped away from the dishes at the sink and wiped her hands on a nearby kitchen towel.  Draping the towel over the oven door handle, she stepped toward the counter, meeting Colleen and Alicia at the entryway into our family room.  “What’s going on?”  Mom looked puzzled, but remained calm.  “You don’t need to yell.  We’re all right here.”

“Don’t yell?  DON’T YELL?”  Colleen’s voice exploded as it climbed an octave.  “You bet I have every right to yell!  Do you have any idea what your daughter has done to my baby girl?” 

Mom tilted her head, looking every bit as confused as I felt.  “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”  Mom’s quiet demeanor softened the impact of Colleen’s abrasive words.  “We’ll get much further if you’d just lower your voice a tad,” she encouraged. 

“Oh, it’s much worse than you think!” Colleen insisted.  “Your daughter isn’t the perfect lil’ saint you think she is!”  She brushed past Mom, forcing her way into the kitchen.  Hefting Alicia onto the counter in front of me, Colleen tugged at the delicate buttons on the front of Alicia’s blue and white sailor dress until the plastic decorations popped open.  Alicia grappled with the flimsy cotton, embarrassment inflaming her cheeks.  Colleen yanked the opening of Alicia’s dress even wider, jabbing a finger at her exposed chest.  “LOOK!” she barked at me.  “Alicia’s so scared of you, she’s broken out in hives!” 

Lifting my eyes, I witnessed red patches of raised welts all over Alicia’s torso.

Alicia began to tremble.  “Oh, don’t worry, Honey,” Colleen cooed.  “Hope won’t hurt you.  I won’t let her.”  Sappy sympathy turned into curt threats while Colleen struggled to refasten Alicia’s dangling buttons.

Mom reached her hand across the counter and gently touched the edge of Colleen’s arm.  “Colleen, why don’t you calmly share with us what you think the problem is instead of attacking Hope.  We still don’t know why you’re here.”

“Hope knows why I’m here,” Colleen retorted.  Her beady eyes stared down at me.  Demonic overtones accompanied her challenge.  “Go ahead and tell your mother what you did,” she prodded.  “Why don’t you share with her how her precious lil’ angel is really a child molester?”  A wicked, knowing smile spread across her face, a firm nod asserting her power.  “Go ahead,” she verbally poked.  “I dare you.”

I squirmed under Colleen’s scrutiny.  It doesn’t matter what I say.  This isn’t going to turn out well, I feared.  Wanting to run, but too afraid to move, I sat paralyzed in my seat.  “I-I-I didn’t do anything.”

“Oh, don’t even try pulling a pity party on me, Princess,” Colleen thundered.  “You’re no angel, and I’m going to prove it!”  Her evil stare threatened to devour me.  “I’m giving you one last chance,” she warned.  Her body tensed and relaxed in sync with her heavy breathing.  “Tell your mother what you did! Own your actions, and do it…NOW.”  I inhaled sharply as her fist landed inches in front of me on our beige laminate countertop.  Tears streamed down my face, but I remained silent.

“Yeah, you should feel bad,” Colleen inflicted shame.  “After all you’ve put Alicia through these past few years, you’re lucky I haven’t gone to the authorities!”

“Authorities?” I gasped.  “But I haven’t done anything wrong!  I haven’t hurt anybody.”  I looked at Alicia in shock.  “Alicia, tell her.  Tell her she’s wrong.”  Surreality swelled around me. Alicia avoided my gaze.

“What do authorities have to do with this?”  Mom echoed my disbelief.

Colleen refused to answer.  Instead, she shifted her focus.  “Alicia’s not the only one who’s scared of you.”  Colleen’s wicked smile widened from ear to ear, spreading into her sandy blonde hair.  She nodded toward the front door.  “Just ask your sister, there, if she feels safe around you. Go ahead, Julia,” Colleen coaxed.  “You can tell them the truth.  You don’t have to be afraid of Hope.  She’s not going to hurt you.”

Julia stood in the hallway, just a few feet behind Mom.  Somehow, she had managed to slip into the room—almost unnoticed.  Shrugging, she shot me a bewildered glance then looked at Mom and whispered, “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“It’s OK,” Colleen prodded.  “Don’t be afraid.  You can tell your mother what’s been going on.  You’re scared of Hope, too, aren’t you?”

Confusion wrinkled Julia’s brow and spread to other corners of her face.  “No….”  She slowly shook her head.

“Well, that doesn’t matter.  Alicia is terrified of Hope—and for good reason.”  An abrupt flick of Colleen’s wrist and Julia’s answer no longer existed.  “You’re a monster,” she returned her attention to me, “and you deserve to be thrown in jail.  I can prove it!”

I winced at the sharp accusations, slowly withdrawing into my chair.

Staring down a ridged nose, Colleen postured for dominance on the opposite side of the counter.  “Listen closely,” she demanded, slamming a fist down on the counter.  “I don’t want you ever talking, touching, or even being near Alicia again.  Is that understood?  Don’t even think about it!”  Her fierce demands sprayed spit across the back of my bare forearms, but I remained frozen.  “Am. I. Clear?” she boomed.

I swallowed hard and nodded slowly.  I’m sure the neighbors even heard you.

Heat rose in Colleen’s cheeks, and perspiration glistened across her forehead.  “You can kiss your babysitting days good-bye,” she continued.  Leaning toward me for emphasis, she added, “When I’m done exposing you for the perverted lil’ tramp you are, you’ll be lucky to find employment slinging cow dung.”  My neck retracted into my shoulders as I countered her closeness.

“Now, Colleen, don’t you think that’s being a little harsh?”  Annoyance coated Mom’s inquiry.  “These are kids we’re talking about.  Goodness, they act more like close sisters than they do friends.  Hope would never do anything to harm Alicia.  You know that.”

Colleen straightened to her full height of almost six feet and stared down at Mom.  “No, Renee, I don’t think I’m being too harsh.  She molested my child, and she deserves to be put in juvenile detention.”  Hate seethed from every word.

Mom looked up, steadying her stance.  “Wait j-u-s-t a minute,” she objected.  “I don’t know what you believe happened; but, again, let me emphasize this, we’re talking about children here.  They are not criminals.”

Colleen’s opposition rose with her shoulders and expanded the broad width of her chest.  “I was molested by my father, Renee.  I know what abuse looks like.  You are in no position to tell me otherwise.”  Colleen’s body remained rigid, her eyes flaunting ice-cold defiance.

“What does that have to do with Hope?” Mom rebutted.

“Alicia told me about the masturbation and the…the….  I can’t even make myself think about what Hope has done to my precious baby!”  She shuddered for emphasis.  “I should have never left her alone to babysit my child.”  Colleen mechanically placed her hand on Alicia’s inner thigh, preventing the little girl from sliding off the counter.  Alicia froze at her mother’s touch, fear widening her eyes.  Mom’s attentiveness also caught the unusual reaction, but she didn’t say anything.

“I took Alicia to the doctor today,” Colleen continued.  “There are ways of telling when little girls have been sexually abused.”  She nodded emphatically, trying to bolster her credibility.  “There are ways.  The doctor found evidence that Alicia’s been defiled—likely sometime within the past four weeks,” she continued.  “I’m telling you, whoever did this is going to pay!”

“I understand your concern,” Mom acknowledged, “but you can’t possibly believe Hope had anything to do with what you’re talking about.”  Mom shook her head.  “Hope’s not an abuser,” she stressed.  “She loves Alicia—and not in some sick, perverted kind of way.  She would fight to the death to protect her.  You know that.  Use some common sense here.”

Colleen clenched her teeth and folded her arms.  “So, next, I suppose you’re going to tell me you know nothing about Hope’s inappropriate behavior while babysitting my child?”  Her foot tapped out impatience on our kitchen floor.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Mom insisted.  “Hope’s not a liar, and she wouldn’t cover something up to save her own hide.  She’s too honest for that.”  Mom sighed.  “You’re assuming some horrible act was forced upon your child,” she acknowledged, “and maybe it was, but not by our family.  No one in this house had a part in harming Alicia; and, actually, I take great offense at you believing that maybe they did.”  Mom folded her arms across her chest, mirroring Colleen’s rigidness.  “How long have you known us?  Four…five years?” 

The direct nature of Mom’s question caught Colleen off guard.  “I…uh…yeah…something like that,” she affirmed.

“And when have you ever known our family to treat yours with anything less the utmost respect?”  Mom dared Colleen to answer.

“You don’t understand,” Colleen bumbled her words.  “I was abused as a child.  I know when my child is being mistreated.”

“You’re right.  I don’t understand,” Mom interjected.  “I didn’t have the same childhood you had; but these are outrageous accusations.  You know this isn’t something Hope is capable of doing, much less something she would even think of doing; yet, here you stand, all high and mighty, choosing to hold Hope accountable for something she just told you she didn’t do.”  Mom gestured at Colleen’s cockiness.  “Explain that.”

“Well, I…,”  Colleen floundered.

Mom didn’t wait for an explanation.  “You know Hope would never lie to stay out of trouble.  She’s not that kind of person,” she continued.  “If there is something going on with Alicia—and, by the looks of it, there might be—you can bet your bottom dollar Hope had nothing to do with it.”  Mom released a pent up sigh and relaxed her shoulders.  “I am willing to stand by you and figure out who’s behind this mess, but you have got to come to your senses.  I want to hear just the facts, no more crazy tangents.”

Colleen remained statuesque, void of emotion.

“Take in a deep breath and think logically about this for a minute,” Mom instructed.  “As best friends, we’ve done everything together the past few years—trips to the beach, birthday parties, sitting around just shootin’ the breeze.  You name it.  We’ve been there.  But our family hasn’t seen your family in weeks—weeks, Colleen!  Tell me.  When was the last time we actually spent any time together?  Think about it.  Before Thanksgiving?  The holidays?  I can’t give you an exact date,” Mom admitted, “but I know it’s been a while.” 

Colleen clenched her jaw, but said nothing.

Fed up with the nonsense, Mom threw her hands up in the air.  “If something has happened to Alicia—like you say it has—you need to seek out logical answers, Colleen; but don’t go pinning false blame on others.  Hope is not your fall guy or scape goat.  Is that clear?”

Unmoved by Mom’s emotion or advocacy, Colleen rolled her eyes.

“Look, a friend told me you were released from inpatient rehab recently.  Is that true?”  Mom paused.  Colleen didn’t blink.  “I know you participated in a program geared toward helping women with weight-control issues,” she added, “and I know your childhood was one of the topics discussed during those sessions.”  Mom studied Colleen’s face.  “I can only imagine how hard it must’ve been for you to talk about all those awful things your father did to you as a child.”  Sympathy softened Mom’s posture.  “Do you think that has anything to do with the anger you’re experiencing right now?”

Colleen bristled.  “Absolutely not!  How I’m feeling has nothing to do with that,” she deflected.

“OK….”  Mom chose her next words wisely.  “So, tell me, who did Alicia stay with during your four weeks in the hospital?  I know it wasn’t us, but somebody had to be watching her.  She’s too young to be left alone.”  Colleen rolled her eyes then fixated her gaze across the room. 

Mom made several mental calculations then counted off a number on her fingers.  “It’s been at least eight weeks since we’ve seen you, Colleen—longer if you figure in the last time Hope did any babysitting for you.”  Colleen cocked an eyebrow and pursed her lips, unamused.  “What I’m trying to say is, Hope couldn’t have done what you’re accusing her of doing.  The math doesn’t add up.”  Mom looked to me for input.  “Can you remember the last time you were alone with Alicia?”

I shook my head.  “No, but I know it wasn’t recently.”  I sat on my hands, praying they’d stop shaking.

Mom turned her attention back to Colleen.  “So, I ask you again, Colleen, who was Alicia with while you were in the hospital?”

Colleen cleared her throat while eyeing Mom.  “Donald wouldn’t do something like that,” she defended Alicia’s father.  “I know my husband.  He’s not an abuser.”

“And I know my daughter,” Mom emphasized.  “She didn’t do this.”  She stared Colleen in the eyes, struggling to maintain her composure.  “I don’t believe you understand the implications of what you are saying.  You really need to reevaluate your stand, here, and stop going down this road.”

Colleen shifted her weight.  “Oh, I know exactly what I’m saying!” she retorted.  “How else do you explain what happened?”

Mom’s eyes widened, dumbfounded.  “I just did!”

“No, you didn’t.  You just made up excuses for why you think Hope’s not responsible.” Colleen’s snootiness flared.

“Because she’s not!”  Mom’s voice cracked with indignation.  “What other proof do you need?”

“None.  We’re done here,” Colleen snapped.  Annoyed by our perceived idiocy, Colleen yanked Alicia from the counter and marched her to the front door, pounding out her frustration with heavy footfalls.  “Don’t think this is the last you’ve seen of me,” she threatened over her shoulder.  “I know what I know.  The authorities will hear about this, and you’re going to juvenile detention, Hope.  That’s a promise—even if I have to take you there myself!”  She swung the screen door open then allowed it to bang shut behind her.

“Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Colleen,” Mom yelled after her.  “I won’t just stand by and allow you to smear my family’s good name.” 

Colleen cackled in pure mockery.  “We’ll see about that.”

Mom swiftly made her way down the front hall and forcefully closed the main wooden door, securing the deadbolt.  A few moments later, the sound of slamming car doors and screeching tires announced Colleen’s true departure.

I lifted a pencil from the kitchen countertop and heaved it across the room, making a loud, guttural sound as I watched it ricochet off the dining room wall. “No-o-o-o-o-o-o!” I screamed.  “I didn’t hurt her.  It wasn’t me!”  I collapsed in heavy sobs, nearly convulsing with the nerves consuming my body.  Mom hurried to my side and gently guided me to the couch, sitting down beside me.

“Julia, why don’t you go find something to play with in your room for a little while,” Mom encouraged.  “I need to spend a few moments here with Hope.”  She tightened her grip on my arms as I continued to shake.

Julia looked me over then nodded in sadness.  “OK, Mommy.”

I nestled my face in the nape of Mom’s neck and shook from head to toe, unable to wrap my mind around what had just happened.  “I didn’t do it, Mom,” I gasped in desperation.  “I didn’t do it!”

“I know you didn’t,” Mom assured me.  “I know you didn’t.”  She wiped wet strands of hair from my face and tucked them tenderly behind my ear.  Rocking me back and forth in her arms, one of her tears dripped onto the top of my head as she raised her face toward Heaven.  “Lord, what am I supposed to do?” she whispered.  “What are we going to do?”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *  

Thirty minutes.  One false accusation.  And my life laid in shambles at the hand of a crazed madwoman.

“She’ll never be allowed to be alone with children again or care for the elderly.  That’s what your attorney friend said over the phone,” Mom recounted to Dad.  I listened from my bedroom as they discussed my situation alone in the kitchen.  They tried being quiet, assuming sleep had already claimed me, but I heard every word.  “This is going to crush her,” Mom continued.  “Her only dream is to be an elementary school teacher.  She loves children.  Her passion for learning is what drives her.  Now what is she going to do?  Can Colleen really destroy her future like this?  How can she get away with these lies?”

A kitchen cabinet door snapped shut then I heard a ceramic bowl warble into place on top of the countertop.  Dad’s helpless three-word answer followed.  “I don’t know.”

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